Stone Age Economics and the Religion of the Left: What Would Jesus Bankroll? (5.24.09)
This is a very complex question, in part because the world is so very different today than it was 2000 years ago or even 100 years ago. At least the modern world is. One of the the reasons human beings have always had difficulty understanding economics is that they are exceedingly temporo-centric, and do not appreciate the much larger trends at any given time.
To cite just one glaring example, when Marx was writing his critique of industrial capitalism in the mid 19th century, living standards were finally rising after hundreds, and I suppose, thousands, of years of stagnation. Workers were finally rising above subsistence levels and beginning to be able to purchase necessities and eventually luxuries that would have been completely unavailable to them in the past.
In short, the means of creating unlimited wealth was not really stumbled upon by human beings until the rise of industrial capitalism. Human beings had finally discovered the key to economic growth, which came down to individual liberty, free markets, strong private property rights, sound money, and the rule of law.
And even then, it took several hundred more years to tame the "boom or bust" cycle, to the point that people no longer expect economic recessions, much less, depressions. It is now as if people imagine that unlimited economic growth and prosperity is the norm instead of an extraordinary deviation from the past. And with that, a sense of entitlement is nurtured, which in turn is rooted in what the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called constitutional envy.
As I have written before, I believe envy must have had some evolutionary utility, or else it wouldn't have survived the process of natural selection. Since 99% of human evolution took place in small bands of hunter-gatherers, my view is that envy must have ultimately served the purpose of group cohesiveness.
Human beings could not possibly have survived as individuals, but only as part of a group. Therefore, anything that promoted the fitness of the group is likely to have been strongly reinforced. In a small group, it would have obviously been detrimental for one member to horde all of the resources, so we might say that envy is a mechanism that is actually selected by evolution in order to maintain our intrinsic communism. In other words, communism is our default state (as seen in our immediate families), whereas certain traits and habits of mind associated with capitalism must be learned, among them, trust of the stranger, the tamping down of envy, and a focus on the future instead of the present.
Back when I was writing my book and trying to assimilate as much world history as I could in a short period of time, one of the more provocative books I came across was one called From Plato to Nato: The Idea of the West and its Opponents. Gress believes that we have been misled by scholars who, because they live in the abstract world of thought, overvalue their own ideas. As such, they came up with the idea of the "grand narrative" of Western history extending back to its roots in ancient Greece.
But Gress believes that such critical ideas as liberty, democracy, and the free market were not so much ideas as behaviors that people lived out and only later reflected upon, in the manner, say, of Adam Smith. In other words, no one invented capitalism, or liberty or democracy, and that's sort of the point. These things had to first be lived and experienced in order to be valued.
I think we can understand Gress's point in analyzing the difficulty of transplanting "the idea of freedom" to the Middle East. Frankly -- and this is a little alarming to contemplate -- you can't just unproblematically transplant such an idea, because it is a value rooted in centuries of collective experience. I remember Dennis Prager discussing this on his radio program, and it came as a bit of a jolt to me. Like President Bush, I had had it in my mind that the desire for liberty was a universal human wish, something built into us. Therefore, all you have to do is "give" it to people, and that will be that.
Quite the opposite. Liberty is not a built in -- much less universal -- value, and I think you can see how this is a major part of understanding the motivations -- or shall we say, the deep structure -- of leftism. Classical liberals wonder why leftists do not value freedom, but they shouldn't. Rather, the question is why we do value it, because it is an obvious aberration in the human race. Most humans value security over liberty, predictability over change, conformity over individuality, and authority over self-rule. So when we see that leftists hate freedom and progress but love authority and comformity, we should not be the least bit surprised, for it is true of most rank-and-foul humans.
To finish up with Prager's thought, he noted that it was God who wanted humans to have freedom, not humans. For the vast majority of human beings, liberty is not a particularly important value, much less the most important one. They would just as soon barter it away for security, as they have done in western Europe. Once you understand this, then much about the left begins to make sense. In Europe, we can see how the welfare state puts in place a system of incentives that creates a new kind of enfeebled man, but that's not exactly correct. In reality, it simply reveals man for what he is -- a lazy, frightened, selfish, superstitious, instinct-loving and lowdown rascal. Leftism aims low and always reaches its target.
Only liberty unleashes the possibility of man and reveals what man can be, as an alternative to the unimpressive specter of what he is.
Much of this is laid out quite succinctly by Robert A. Sirico in the latest edition of the Hillsdale College Imprimis. The entire article is well worth reading, but I will attempt to summarize some of the key points. Sirico points out that leftism was not always the anti-progressive, anti-human movement it has become. Rather, it began with fairly noble aspirations, especially when we remember that the means of creating wealth were not at all well understood at the time. As such, the early socialists naively thought that socialism could achieve what capitalism could not:
"The core of the old socialist hope was a mass prosperity that would free all people from the burden of laboring for others and place them in a position to pursue higher ends, such as art and philosophy, in a conflict-free society."
But there was the problem of human temporo-centrism alluded to above: "The Marxist prediction of a revolution that would bring about this good society rested on the assumption that the condition of the working classes would grow ever worse under capitalism. But by the early twentieth century it was clear that this assumption was completely wrong. Indeed, the reverse was occurring: As wealth grew through capitalist means, the standard of living of all was improving."
That should have been the end of socialism, but it wasn't. And that is precisely when it transitioned from something that could at least be defended on rational or humanitarian grounds to a substitute religion. And again, it is specifically not a new religion, but a resurrection of mankind's default religion. Leftism is actually the abstract articulation of the "economic psychology" of Stone Age man. There is nothing new about it, which is why we see so much "born again paganism" associated with it -- the cult of the body, the exaltation of the senses, barbaric art forms, the vapid mystagogy of the "new age," etc.
What was truly new and progressive were all of the massive changes wrought by the unfettered free market:
"Historians now realize that even in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, workers were becoming better off. Prices were falling, incomes rising, health and sanitation improving, diets becoming more varied, and working conditions constantly improving. The new wealth generated by capitalism dramatically lengthened life spans and decreased child mortality rates. The new jobs being created in industry paid more than most people could make in agriculture. Housing conditions improved. The new heroes of society came from the middle class as business owners and industrialists displaced the nobility and gentry in the cultural hierarchy."
In light of everything that had gone before, this was truly a miracle. But one of the less flattering characteristics of human beings is that there is no gift so miraculous, no grace so bountiful, that they cannot take it for granted. As such, another trait of the leftist -- as we all know -- is the conspicuous absence of gratitude, for gratitude is another spiritual value that does not come naturally to human beings. In one sense it must be cultivated, but in another sense it is a spiritual reward, since it frees one from the painful constitutional envy that motivates the leftist -- the ouch they can't stop screeching.
Put it this way: the "glass" of wealth is exponentially larger than it has ever been, and it is growing all the time. But no matter how big it gets, the leftist is condemned to seeing it as half full and obsessing over the fact that someone else has more. Thus,
"In the midst of all this change, many people seemed only to observe an increase in the number of the poor. In a paradoxical way, this too was a sign of social progress, since so many of these unfortunate people might have been dead in past ages. But the deaths of the past were unseen and forgotten, whereas current poverty was omnipresent. Meanwhile, as economic development expanded in the nineteenth century, there was a dramatic growth of a middle class that now had access to consumer goods once available only to kings -- not to mention plenty of new goods being created by the engine of capitalism."
Needless to day -- at least for a classical liberal -- "The poor didn’t get poorer because the rich were getting richer (a familiar socialist refrain even today) as the socialists had predicted. Instead, the underlying reality was that capitalism had created the first societies in history in which living standards were rising in all sectors of society. In a sense, free market capitalism was coming closest to realizing what Marx himself had imagined: 'the all round development of individuals' in which 'the productive forces will also have increased' and 'the springs of social wealth will flow more freely.'"
Well, that's about all I have time for today, which could be a day to test the Gagdad Spirit. Mrs. G. is going away overnight on a secret mission of the utmost importance, leaving the boys to fend for themselves for the first time ever. This will be interesting. Would it be wrong to just place a large pizza in the back yard and allow Future Leader to run around naked all day? I mean, if it's good enough for me....